For 61-year-old Deepak Gopinath, a retired army officer, there is no greater agony than a clue unsolved. Put a newspaper crossword in front of him and he summons up his four decades of experience in cracking devious codes. This is familiar territory. For much of his life, Colonel Gopinath has walked the maze of black and white every morning, tackling its trickeries and revelling in the wordplay at every corner. He has published solutions to daily crosswords on his blog since 2009 and probably knows as many words as a spelling bee champion. Crosswords are an obsession, says the colonel’s wife, Gita, who knows better than to interrupt his train of thought when he is poring over a puzzle.
In December last year, Gopinath won the first Indian Crossword League that commemorated 100 years of the crossword. In an avowal of the relevance of the puzzle in this day and age, 21-year-old Mohsin Ahmed made a stylish break into the IXL, in second place, just five points behind the colonel.
Ahmed, who works with the Mission Planning and Analysis Division of the Indian Space Research Organisation in Bangalore, is one of India’s fastest solvers. “I give a clue a few seconds and move on to the next. I spend at most an hour on a grid, and, on average, solve about 80 per cent of it,” he says. A precocious penchant for wordplay and the proverbial practice helped him. “I got into crosswords when I was about 15. Mom is a regular solver and I’d watch her pore over the paper every morning, and that probably piqued my interest. From then on, it used to be a race to the paper and a competition between me and mom,” he says.
A spirited young audience is now clued into the forgotten charms of the crossword, says Vivek Kumar Singh, an IAS officer from Bihar and the man behind the IXL. Singh also organises a national inter-school crossword tournament and online contests. “Bangalore has emerged as the crossword capital of the country,” Singh says. “Of the 10 finalists at the IXL, six were from here.”
According to Singh, solvers in India today can be clubbed into two broad categories: those who have time on their hands after retirement, and young, intelligent solvers from the IT sector or premier educational institutions who savour a good puzzle. Bangalore is home to both.
“I have come across brilliant young solvers on Twitter,” says Shuchismitha Upadhyay, a young software engineer from Bangalore, who writes a blog, crosswordunclued.com, on demystifying the cryptic crossword. Upadhyay, who was among the finalists at the IXL, tries to solve at least one crossword — from The Times, UK, Financial Times or The Guardian — every day. “You will invariably find in my handbag crossword printouts, which I fill in whenever I get a chance,” she says. Unlike Sudoku, a crossword doesn’t have to be 100 per cent done to be considered “solved”, Upadhyay says. Solving each individual clue is rewarding. “I feel a thrill when I crack a particularly good clue. Solvers use the term, ‘penny-drop moment’, for the moment when the haze surrounding a tricky clue suddenly clears. That feeling has no parallel,” she says.
The cryptic crossword, an inheritance from Britain, is not merely definitional: it is a playful manipulation of words, employing anagrams, container clues, puns, homophones, letter deletions and substitutions to lead and deceive, to delight and frustrate. All of this involves considerable mental and verbal gymnastics. Consider this seemingly simple clue: “The man is beginning to trivialise robbery (5)”. The answer is “heist”: it is made up of “he” or the man, “is”, and “t” from “trivialise”. This puzzle element, and not just knowing words, is what makes crosswords interesting, says Kaushik Nadadhur, a 31-year-old Bangalore-based techie. One January morning, Nadadhur looks anxiously into his Android phone, hoping for an “aha” moment. Without a starting letter to hinge the word, he must “cold-solve” the first clue: “Pick what is said about the polls (9)”. He isn’t a novice, and not quite a pro, but he has his days. Today is one. And in a flash, he has hit upon the answer: “electoral”. “I enjoy the wordplay, pun and general knowledge thrown into some clues,” he says.
The perfect clue is minimalistic, says Ahmed. “There should be no superfluous words. On first reading, it shouldn’t be obvious that it is a cryptic clue.” A keen footballer, who supports Manchester United, Ahmed counts the following among his favourite clues: “Man united playing away from home later rued foul (9)”. The solution: “adulterer”, an anagram of “later rued”. If you are sharp enough to read “man united” as “married”, adultery is the obvious answer. The clue first lures you in with its apparent ease, only to have you rethink the premise itself.
Crossword setting is an art honed over time, and every setter evolves his own individual style, says Kishore M Rao, a 52-year-old accountant and long-time solver, who sets puzzles under the pseudonym Incognito. Almost all setters go by an assumed name; it is a tradition as old as the crossword itself. The pseudonym, together with the style of clueing, often conveys the setter’s personality. “Setting is not about outwitting the solver, it is about conveying a challenge,” says Rao. “The best crosswords use everyday words. I can’t expect solvers to know the name of a river in Norway or an exotic plant.” It takes Rao about four hours to set a crossword, but he is mining ideas all the time. Most setters start with a software-generated symmetrical grid, which they fill up with words, and pen the clues in later. “I have a notepad next to my bed where I scribble words and clues as they occur to me,” Rao says. On a desktop computer, he points to a simple puzzle he set for his eight-year-old niece that spells out her name around the boundary of the grid, and also hides a New Year message elsewhere. During the Second World War, British intelligence agencies accosted Leonard Dawe, a crossword setter for The Daily Telegraph, for including code words from the Allied invasion of Normandy as solutions to clues in his puzzles. Today, setters are happy to settle for clever, apolitical “secret” messages.
Besides all the fun, the style of the modern crossword puzzle broadens the mind, says Shailaja T, a 20-year-old medical student from north Bangalore. “After looking at a word many ways, a solver tends to observe the world from various angles,” she says. Shailaja is at a busy intersection in her life, with no more than an hour a day to spend on crosswords. “When harried, I resort to online digital tools like anagram solvers, and I am not proud of this,” she says. “Sometimes I solve the difficult clues with a friend.” For many young solvers today, this is what life on the grid looks like.